Photo Essay

London Calling

Downtown London, Ontario felt like a parallel universe version of Hamilton in which Main Street was two-way and McMaster had a proper downtown campus.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 08, 2010

On Saturday, my wife attended a baby shower in London, Ontario, which gave me the opportunity to wander around for a couple of hours and try to get a sense of the city.

Obviously this is just a quick set of impressions rather than a comprehensive review, but I must admit to a profound sense of surreality as I drove and then walked my way around.

What I noticed above all was the full-spectrum similarity between London and Hamilton. Of course, like most cities London is ringed by an asteroid belt of interchangeable sprawl houses, big box plazas, strip malls and chain stores. That, sadly, goes without saying, and it was toward the downtown core that I sped myself through the generic suburban dreck.

Once I was in London proper, I felt transported into a parallel universe version of Hamilton in which Main Street was two-way and McMaster had a proper downtown campus.

Perhaps it's just the fact that Hamilton and Toronto are both Victorian cities in southern Ontario (King Street, check; York Street, check; Wellington Street, check...), but I was overhwelmed by the similarities.

London's version of Landed Banking and Loan
London's version of Landed Banking and Loan

London's version of the CIBC towers
London's version of the CIBC towers

National Bank
National Bank

London's version of Effort Trust: Theirs is called FARHI
London's version of Effort Trust: Theirs is called FARHI

Hey, they even have a London Tap House!
Hey, they even have a London Tap House!

London Streetwall on Richmond
London Streetwall on Richmond

Richmond and Dundas
Richmond and Dundas

Downtown London must be doing okay.
Downtown London must be doing okay. The preponderance of attractive young couples suggests that the proximity of UWO is good for the core.

A Tim Horton's without a drive-thru?
A Tim Horton's without a drive-thru?

Outdoor shish-kabob hut
Outdoor shish-kabob hut

I found this mural in an alley that led to one of the many large and copious parking lots just behind the main streets
I found this mural in an alley that led to one of the many large and copious parking lots just behind the main streets

Federal building

Federal building

Richmond Hotel and Tavern
Richmond Hotel and Tavern

Not creepy at all.
Not creepy at all.

City Lights Book Shop
City Lights Book Shop

A little bit of Second Empire
A little bit of Second Empire

St. Peter's Cathedral
St. Peter's Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Cathedral

Covent Garden Market is charming from the outside and vibrant from the inside. Hamilton Farmers' Market really needs to up its game.
Covent Garden Market is charming from the outside and vibrant from the inside. Hamilton Farmers' Market really needs to up its game.

Robinson Hall on Talbot Street
Robinson Hall on Talbot Street

Jim Bob Ray's. Looks classy.
Jim Bob Ray's. Looks classy.

Locke on Richmond: Ten Thousand Villages
Locke on Richmond: Ten Thousand Villages

Locke on Richmond: Forrat's Chocolates
Locke on Richmond: Forrat's Chocolates

I was delighted to get stuck behind a freight train. Several minutes later, still watching cars trundle past, my delight was a bit muted.
I was delighted to get stuck behind a freight train. Several minutes later, still watching cars trundle past, my delight was a bit muted.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted November 08, 2010 at 22:00:25

Nice piece Ryan,

I was there a couple of weeks back to see Stars at the Music Hall. Parts of downtown are strikingly similar. A walk through the old Galleria mall was depressing and gratifying at the same time (our problem is not unique). I remember upscale shopping there in the 90s when I was a Western student. Now it is dollar stores, bulk barns and other fillers, much like our own City Center. I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad by the comparison, but on the surface, it seems that these dowtown malls built by Cadillac Fairview were doomed from the start. I've always liked Richmond Row., and spend time there out of nostalgia, but like Hess village, it sometimes doubles as a sexy kindergarten. There is also a really cool James St. kind of vibe near the John labatt centre and Covent Garden area. I will definitely dine there when I go back to see Rufus Wainwright in December.

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By scb (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 08:03:40

I WISH we had a bulk barn in Jackson!

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By MattM (registered) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 10:01:40

I spent a few days in London back in June. It was my first proper visit and the similarities are certainly there. London seems to have kept the streetwalls together a lot better than Hamilton. Most of the surface lots are actually in BEHIND the buildings that front to the street. You know, like a proper city. The general populace downtown definitely has that "student" feel, especially in that area around "Jim Bob Ray's". I did find a pretty good Poutinerie there was I thought Hamilton should have downtown. Our best comparison is a crappy New York Fries in Jackson Square which recently overhauled their poutine menu.

Transit seems passable but I'd dare say the HSR in Hamilton is more convenient at people moving. They have a nice stop announcement system on the buses though, somewhat better than ours.

I think the thing that really struck me is that London has a fairly well developed central business district and some defined bank towers. This is something Hamilton has been lacking ever since the loss of the Bank of Hamilton building (the glass CIBC towers just don't replace it) and the other banks which were along James South between King and Jackson. I always felt Hamilton's "big city streetwall" used to be on that stretch of James. Used to resemble Yonge Street in Toronto. London retained their bank canyons and financial district fairly well.

In closing I feel that London's downtown is certainly in a good place. It clearly benefits strongly from the student presence but also pays homage to the past. Hamilton could certainly benefit in much the same way if McMaster or even Mohawk were to invest more in the downtown. The area around Mac is very similar to that "Jim Bob Ray" area in London. Lots of pubs and food joints. I don't think I would ever directly compare London to Hamilton though. When I returned to Hamilton, coming down the 403, the skyline suddenly filled my vision ahead and I got a big city feeling that I didn't have in London. Hamilton is freaking huge and dense. You don't get a sense for it unless you go somewhere like London. Immediately when I got off the bus in front of city hall, everything felt very Hamilton again. The smells, the sights, the sounds are all unique. I think if I were to compare London to another city in Ontario, it'd be St. Catharines. Hamilton is really only comparable to Toronto (yes, I said it).

In the end my London memories are a drunken night at the Richmond tavern and sitting on a Sherman tank in a park. That was fun. Hamilton needs a tank.

Comment edited by MattM on 2010-11-09 09:10:59

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2010 at 11:03:25

I think of London the way many people think of Hamilton... "ugh, what the heck could possibly be there to go there for?" It's good to see some change - I was there a few months ago and noticed things were considerably better than five-ish years ago.

I did find a pretty good Poutinerie there was I thought Hamilton should have downtown. Our best comparison is a crappy New York Fries in Jackson Square which recently overhauled their poutine menu.

It may be a chain, but wouldn't a Frite Alors! be great? Who has $225k? Frite Alors!

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 12:26:37

I was much empressed by metal sculptures I saw in London done by some local artist. Huge rusty insects, seems like made from a scrap metal. There is a similar huge metal pinecone in Toronto on a private property near High Park, but those in London are so cool.

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By damonallan (registered) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 12:33:53

I have been to London 2 times this past year. They have it going on. I will be back. I was very surprised.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 13:59:16

I too was in London for a few days this summer. I was very impressed with the city. I thought that they had a much nicer dt than Hamilton as I noticed fewer derilect buildings and many of the people seemed to be more of the students and professional type. This is something Hamilton needs to emulate.

Capitalist

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2010 at 19:45:44

Can't recall when I last saw London but I just had a similar tour through Waterloo, thanks to some strange instructions from Mr Garmin. We were in a bit of a rush but it took us straight through downtown. Wow. The place reeks of money. Every little shop all spiffyed up and seemingly well attended. Too rushed to notice if there were any towers or throngs of students - my overriding memory is of miles of walkable, interesting shop districts. While MattM opines "if McMaster or even Mohawk were to invest more in the downtown", my vote goes toward non-gummermental taxPAYING enterprise, both primary and secondary. That is what we need more of. In order to get it, we have to clear cobwebs out of the way and encourage our own citizens to take chances, and forget about all the fancy money schemes such as stadia, LRTs and AEGDs that benefit bankers and newspapers but leave the bills for the people to pay, and pay. And pay.

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By abc (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 20:32:04

Hamilton has one important factor over London: we're less than an hour away from the largest city in Canada and all the wonderful urban things that only a city like Toronto can offer. London is just too far away to take advantage of Toronto's big city charms.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 00:48:44

@Ryan:

Downtown London, Ontario felt like a parallel universe version of Hamilton in which Main Street was two-way

I was born and raised in London. It's 3.8 km from Perth Drive and University Drive to Dundas and Richmond, as compared to 4.2 km from Main Street West and Broadway Street to King and James.

UWO is barely closer to downtown London than McMaster is to downtown Hamilton. It seems a lot closer because, as you mention, it's connected to the downtown by real streets rather than by highways. Not to mention a sweet multi-use pathway along the Thames River.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 08:56:23

Thanks Ryan for the piece on the city I was born and raised in and stayed in until about 25, and the photos. London has a lot going for it but I prefer Hamilton mainly for the escarpment and waterfront trails albeit the Thames River trail is pretty good. And the fact Hamilton is closer to Toronto as people mention. I go back a few times a year to visit family or take in some concerts, love a tiny place called Call the Office for some of the lesser known bands they get, cool intimate venue. I think London has a more feeling of who they are whereas a lot of people in Hamilton think of themselves as greater Torontonians to make themselves feel important.

Again appreciate the work. Some parts of London as just as bad as Hamilton I will say but London isn't quite as large as Hamilton and doesn't rely on heavy industry for employment as much as Hamilton.

The escarpment in Hamilton rocks though, not sure I could ever move back to London to be honest.

Comment edited by HamiltonFan on 2010-11-10 07:57:24

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By JBJ (registered) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 09:22:16

London's downtown is nicer largely because London is a more affluent city than Hamilton. Yes it has its drug problems but they are nowhere near what exists in Hamilton's core. London has gone for the urban funky-chic look that you get when you walk past blocks of boutique stores along Richmond. You don't get the ethnic flavours like one does walking along James North.

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By Another capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 09:45:25

I lived in London for 6 years.

I chose to come back to Hamilton.

London is a city of constrasts. Your rich or not, very little in between. The south east part of town (Adelaide, Commissioners, Dundas) is run down and some areas are very poor. There downtown, specifically Dundas Street, was something BUT they decided to put a large mall downtown. Guess what happened. All of the stores on Dundas closed and eventually the mall closed.

All of downtown moved north into Richmond Row, which is like Westdale/Hess/Locke

I lived north of UWO and there were fields across the street. Now there is a Silver City, Mall after Mall etc.

I didn't find the people very warm either.

Oh and if you think Hamilton politics is bad. The City of Manager in London was convicted of taking bribes.

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By Tartan Triton (anonymous) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 12:30:39

Hamilton's downtown core (Queen to Wellington, Main to Main to Barton) is about as long and wide as London’s but the picture outside that area is more unruly – even aside from the industrail component of Hamilton's development, we've left our heritage holdings scattered all over the place. If you piled the streetwall from areas like Dundas, Westdale, Locke and Ottawa into the core and left behind '80s-style monoboxes, the picture would maybe be more similar.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 13:51:50

@ John Neary,

The distance comparison that you bring up is quite interesting. Why do UWO students go downtown, and MAC students avoid it like the plague? Having lived in both cities and attended both Mac and Western, I have always been disappointed with the town and gown relationship of MAC/Hamilton compared with UWO/London. The issue, in my opinion, is a cultural/geographical one. Students at Western come from much larger distances, and although they are still transient, they spend more time and money in their city than MAC students do. As a result, UWO students form more positive connections with their adopted cities, which is evidenced by stronger alumni support during Homecoming. MAC (aka, suitcase U.) is a barren wasteland on weekends, since students can easily return to their homes (45 min - 1 hr bus ride) where their social networks are more established. Furthermore, many students pick MAC for the reason of proximity, so the most transient Hamilton-avoiding type of student body is pre-selected. Further to this, the student body of MAC that comes from the Hamilton area itself have pre-conceived notions of downtown, and re-inforce negative stereotypes.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 14:14:04

I think Hwy 403 is a big psychological barrier. Seriously - people don't like to cross highways.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 10, 2010 at 15:44:14

London also has poor public transit, and that they're the worst city to live in, in Ontario, for proximity to grocery stores (so they're much more dependent on convenience stores) - two things that work against anyone without a car or with a low income.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 16:01:29

z Jones, I agree, the highway is a huge psychological barrier.

When I first started going to Mac it seemed like I was going "so far away" because I had to "cross the highway." I quickly got used to it as I made the trip by HSR daily. But to those on campus I'm sure "going downtown" seems just as daunting. It probably doesn't help that Westdale provides such a self-contained "bubble" for people to explore and live in.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 16:30:28

Psychological barrier... that may be true.

The 403 is a physical barrier in the sense that the one way bridge is quite hostile to bike traffic, and since bicycles are often a student's main form of transportation, this certainly scares people. The bike lane helps on the king st. bridge, but when you get to the end, you have to dismount and walk. Unless you like riding on the sidewalk, driving against traffic on this one-way drag strip is suicidal. I'll sometimes go over to Main St. when I'm biking, but having no bike lane on that route is immediately dangerous.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 10, 2010 at 17:14:08

I'm not so sure about the highway barrier thing.

Students seem to have no trouble making it to Hess.

@Henry and Joe - I've actually found that you can go further than you think if you follow the arrow that directs you to head north before you arrive at Dundurn. The residential areas just North of King-street are, I think, identified as a city bike-route. There's even nice paved paths across Victoria Park. I got to the Recycle Cycle that way.

When you say "One-way bridge" do you mean Main? Anybody know if their current construction includes a bike lane there? King and Main bridges nicely highlight how bike lanes actually help everybody since the King bridge is far nicer to cross as a pedestrian now that there's a nice safe space between the sidewalk and the traffic.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2010-11-10 16:20:41

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By DanielRodrigues (registered) - website | Posted November 14, 2010 at 15:39:53

Great post Ryan. Being born and raised in London, then making the decision to move to Hamilton in '97, I'm sometimes perplexed at how Hamiltonians view London as being a better town to live in then Hamilton.

While you do state a disclaimer that the post was simply your quick impressions, London really doesn't stack that much better...I'd even go as so far as to say it's much farther down the scale than Hamilton. Ask any Londoner what "EOA" stands for...@AnotherCapitalist states it quite correctly on the gap between the rich and the poor.

London's transit system isn't exactly a model to compare against; and, probably the reason London's downtown has more students than Hamilton comes down to types of businesses. London's famed 'Richmond Row' is geared to students, with more than enough restaurants to make it a destination location. Conversely, in Hamilton we've shoe-horned our restaurants into a one block 'Hess Village' (ask any Mac student..they know where that is), but our downtown is absent of any real student-geared retail or restaurant location. We do have a bingo hall and peep show which may attract a few students, but not enough to make it a destination location!

Many thanks to @HamiltonFan for reminding me of Call the Office...yes that was a great place. The Ox Box and Junction were good hangouts as well...

Hamilton rocks!

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